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Posted June 13 , 2013

Smart Cities

Intelligent Community Forum partners with Blandin Foundation to close the digital divide for rural Minnesota communities

$6.6 million project monitored 11 communities over two years and tracked increases as high as 60% in the use of broadband to boost their economies

New York City — Connecting rural Minnesotans with the Internet boosts their abilities to do things like find new job opportunities, engage in continuing education and strengthen business performance. The evidence of these significant gains is contained in the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) project. The $6.6 million project spanned from 2010 to 2012. Robert Bell, co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) compiled data on the five key indicators that the ICF knows are crucial to any community’s success in the digital age. Bell’s analysis shows the 11 MIRC test communities made substantial progress.

The five ICF indicators are broadband service, training workers in digital skills, digital inclusion of everyone in the community, support for innovation, and marketing the community to the rest of the world. On average rural communities improved their capabilities across these five indicators by 9.49%.

The MIRC project also revealed that for the 250,000 rural Minnesotans in the 11 MIRC communities, broadband penetration – that is the percentage of total Internet service that is high speed – rose almost 15% faster than the rest of rural Minnesota. Over two years, the number of new subscribers signing up to use broadband services in the MIRC communities increased by up to 60% more than in the rest of rural Minnesota.

“Rural towns, cities and counties stand at the threshold of the broadband economy,” said Bell, who worked with the communities to evaluate their broadband readiness and performance. “They already have the sense of place their residents treasure. Through broadband services, they have the chance to add the richness and complexity of life that their urban neighbors have long enjoyed.”

The MIRC project was funded through a $4.8 million Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) grant through the U.S. Department of Commerce and $ $1.8 million in MIRC partner matches. Blandin Foundation administered the grant on behalf of the initiative partners.

Bell says the study enabled the ICF to modify its five indicators so any rural community can focus on attainable goals and measure improvements to the five indicators. Data from the MIRC project also integrates with the ICF’s new Rural Imperative that will create strategies and programs for rural communities showing them how to use Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to meet the rural challenges. “In the broadband economy of the 21st century – when ICT is doing so much to eliminate distance as a barrier – rural areas have opportunities never seen before in history. Today they can plug into the world at low cost regardless of location, and become vital and exciting places to grow a business or build a career, competing successfully with the busiest city centers,” said Bell.

The MIRC project leveraged resources of coalition partners to extend small business technical assistance and training, distribute refurbished computers to low-income families, train individuals and businesses in digital skills and create and deliver courses for knowledge workers.

The MIRC coalition identified areas where improvements were needed, provided advice on actions to implement and tracked results. Project organizers believe the MIRC project was clearly a factor in Minnesota’s ability to maintain its place as a leader in rural broadband adoption and use. “The communities that experienced the fastest growth in broadband reported higher percentages of public awareness and participation in MIRC activities,” said Dr. Jack Geller of The EDA Center at the University of Minnesota – Crookston and lead MIRC researcher. “It’s hard not to connect the MIRC project as a contributor to Minnesota’s leading position in rural broadband adoption.”

The 11 MIRC demonstration communities each received $100,000 to identify and implement nearly 100 projects that fit local broadband needs such as:

• Boreal.TV in Grand Marais, a new local-access online video site that connects residents of and visitors to this far-flung northeastern Minnesota community with live video streaming of local activities from government meetings to local sports events.
• Lac qui Parle County in far west-central Minnesota created the Computer Commuter -- a mobile computer lab using a retooled hotel shuttle bus that brings free broadband access to communities in one of Minnesota’s most sparsely populated regions.
• The University of Minnesota Extension’s Center for Community Vitality (CV) conducted training for more than 2,400 small rural Minnesota businesses on how to use high-speed Internet for marketing, sales and operations.

Blandin Foundation is all about Minnesotans imagining, leading and growing vibrant, resilient, rural communities,” said Dr. Kathleen Annette, CEO of Blandin Foundation. “Though rural broadband faces challenges, local leaders are making inroads. ‘Plugging in’ to broadband allows the small businesses, government entities and the public to fully engage in the new global economy.”

“The MIRC report provides a valuable guidebook to help any community get started on seizing their own destiny,” said Bell.

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